Picture a small boy racing like the wind on his Spiderman BigWheel™. Notice the cape flowing behind him, or is it just an old towel tied around his neck?
It makes no difference to the boy, for he is a real life superhero. Superman, Batman, Spiderman—it makes no difference. His goal is to protect and inspire. He must save the world from harm.
As a child, Ruben Ortiz was inspired by comics. In fact, he claims to have derived many ethical and moral lessons from them.
Batman was Ruben’s Number One hero growing up and remains so to this day. Ironically, Ruben shares many similarities with the caped crusader, as his story will demonstrate.
Becoming “Bible Boy”
At the age of six, Ruben sat on the aforementioned tricycle, circling the table in his mother’s dining room. She was seated there with Jehovah’s Witnesses, attempting to learn about the Bible, and little Ruben was trying desperately to capture their attention with his variety of verbal sound effects: engines revving, sirens blaring, brakes squealing. Suddenly, his mother reached out as he wheeled past and pulled him onto a chair, saying, “You’re going to sit down here—right now—and learn about the Bible with me!”
Ruben loved it! The Bible had all of the answers. Everything made sense to him. Especially did he appreciate the message that God is Love, because even though he’d met his father, his dad didn’t live with the family and Ruben couldn’t see him as often as he needed. Jehovah’s love effectively filled that void for the young boy. He went with his mother to the local Kingdom Hall to attend Jehovah’s Witness meetings, and soon he was joined by siblings, cousins and an aunt.
Ruben believed everything he was taught; he had no doubts whatsoever as a youngster, even when he was singled out as being different from others at school during holiday celebrations. He didn’t mind because he had the love of Jehovah, and that love was of monumental importance.
What follows is an excerpt from “Ruben’s Momentary Glimpse” a blog written the day after Christmas 2010, as he reflected on his inability to participate in holiday celebrations during his childhood:
“It was 1986 and I was in the fifth grade. The school had a holiday concert bash planned and each classroom in the school was going to perform a song. As a Jehovah’s Witness, I was not allowed to participate. Up to that point, I had never thought that I was missing out on celebrating the holidays, and unlike many other kids I knew that were in my situation, I could easily explain to you why I did not. I was the type of Jehovah’s Witness kid that would carry his Bible to school so that I could explain to my teacher why I could not salute the flag, ‘If you see here in Deuteronomy 4:15-20…’ The Christmas explanation was a breeze. I had a lot of love in my house, from my mother and my siblings. Holidays or not, I was a happy kid.” (read the blog post here)
Ruben developed self-esteem issues during fifth grade, not helped by his being somewhat overweight. Considered “dorky” by other kids, he began to be subjected to bullying. But he took it all in stride and persevered with his faith. As a teenager, he was meek and kind, and was even dubbed “Bible Boy” by some of the other kids.
Looking back on it all now, Ruben explains that he was struggling to find his way as an individual. He was making decisions while “trying to be me and a Jehovah’s Witness at the same time. But they rob you of your personal accountability; they blame Satan the Devil or the world in general for your own human desires, so I didn’t learn to take responsibility for my own mistakes or bad judgment. That came later, after I left.”
From fantasy to reality
What led to his decision to leave the safety of a religious group that had provided him with so much love and comfort through the years? The process was a gradual one, as Ruben recalls. Nagging misgivings emerged as he reached his late teens.
In 1995 the Watchtower changed the meaning of the expression “generation,” a word that had been used to explain the approximate 30-year age bracket of humans alive during 1914, and the key to a prophecy regarding the timing of Armageddon. “Truly I say to you that this generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur.” Matt. 24:34, NWT.
Ruben had known for a certainty that they would need to do something to explain why the world hadn’t ended. But when he eventually saw the “new light” in print, he felt gripped by a strange sensation—doubt—something Jehovah’s Witnesses were repeatedly warned against. They were expected to believe unconditionally what was taught by their “Faithful and Discreet Slave Class” at Bethel in Brooklyn, New York, the World Headquarters of the Watchtower Society. Ruben blew it off, letting that first red flag slide. The following year, on his twentieth birthday, Ruben was appointed as a Ministerial Servant.
The Watchtower’s explanation of “generation” flip-flopped as, slowly but surely, other doctrinal changes crept in. Most of these were predictable for Ruben, who had always been a forward-thinker. He saw clearly where reality was headed, and it did not line up accurately with what the Watchtower Society had prophesied in black and white.
Each time the Watchtower announced that “new light” had been received, Ruben wasn’t surprised. He seemed to be one step ahead of the powers-that-be at Bethel. Little did he realize that those routine doctrinal changes were slowly eroding the foundation of his faith in the Watchtower.
Despite his misgivings, being a Witness was something Ruben felt he was good at. “Sometimes I think there were two of me,” he told me, laughing, as he explained how he managed to stuff his feelings away, to ignore warning signs with very little concern.
Losing the Witness mask
Ruben married when he was twenty-four, but the marriage didn’t last. The elders paid a visit to the couple’s home and lovingly explained to Ruben that he was at fault, “for, as the head of the household, I had allowed our spirituality to dwindle, which according to the elder was the root of our problems.” Ruben and his wife tried to improve their spirituality, but after a short while, instead of staying in a miserable marriage, his wife decided to escape a bad situation and left to live with another man.
“Once the divorce was in process,” Ruben says, “I really tried to do what I thought was the right thing. I tried becoming ‘spiritually strong’ as the Jehovah’s Witnesses put it. That didn’t last very long. In a short time I was out partying and eventually doing what I wanted to do, having sex with other single women, including single Jehovah’s Witness women. I discovered that I didn’t feel guilty. In my head I felt justified. I had spent years being ‘good’ doing my best to follow their rules. I failed every once in a while, but I did my best and it got me nowhere. This was my thought process. So I did my thing. I could always go back I thought.” No one called him “Bible Boy” after that.
Eventually, Ruben’s double life caught up with his conscience. He decided to talk to the elders, make a full confession of everything he’d done wrong and attend the meetings like before.
“I told a close friend about my desire to go back and make things right with the congregation. My friend said two words that forever changed my life. She compared the Watchtower with ‘Big Brother’ from the book, 1984. Those words hit me like a ton of bricks. At that moment, I woke up. I KNEW! All the doubts I ever had rushed back to me at that moment.”
Not one to charge into, or out of, anything that he might regret later, Ruben decided to do as much research as necessary to prove what he already knew in his heart.
“I proceeded to look up information on the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. I found Crisis of Conscience at a book store and read what former Governing Body member Raymond Franz wrote in regards to the Witnesses. With the evidence this book presented and other information I researched, I came to the conclusion that the Watchtower organization was as fraudulent as any other religious organization that claims ultimate truth.”
A few weeks later, Ruben sent a Letter of Disassociation to the congregation, instructing them to no longer consider him a Jehovah’s Witness. With that significant part of his life now in the past, Ruben says, “I’m glad I realized that much of what I believed and disbelieved was based on interpretations of ancient writings dictated by men whose sole concern was for the continuation of their corporation. (Italics added) I decided that I would come to my own conclusions based on the evidence presented, reason, and common sense. This led me to where I am today. HAPPY! At times that route may leave you with your occasional ‘I don’t know.’ I am okay with that. I’d rather say ‘I don’t know’ to certain questions than to claim I have all the answers. I have facts, explanations, and a couple of great ideas. I’m happy with that.”
A superhero emerges
Since April 2006, Ruben has spent a considerable amount of time helping persons who have left the Jehovah’s Witness organization to find support. It began with a group on MySpace called “Ex-Jehovah’s Witness Recovery Group.” Many of his closest friends today he met through that group, including Emily, who became his wife in 2010. He also hosts a YouTube page called “Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses Speak Out.” When Facebook took over the social media arena, Ruben moved out of MySpace. A group that had started with 200 people now has over 1,500 members, with more being added daily. He is joined by five co-administrators: Steph Gardener, Lisa Cook Osborne, Christopher K. Young, Raven Pence and Betsy Jael.
The group has “rules, or whatever you want to call them,” Ruben says, and while he’s not a fan of trying to police a group, (or run a cult as he’s been accused by some) he asserts there must be some form of etiquette for a collection of people as diverse as this one. A “New Member Notice” is pinned to the top of the page, and it is edited occasionally as necessary. The notice points to an external web page as a guideline on forum etiquette.
Ruben admits he’s been criticized and has received comments such as, “Who gives a damn?” and “Why don’t you just let it go? Why bother?” So, why does he spend so much time helping others with their transition out of this high control group? Ruben and his co-admins believe in the value of opening their hearts to people who genuinely need a friend. They know how helpful it is to be able to confide in someone who has been in a similar position.
A member will post their concern on the forum, and within minutes others continue the thread regarding that topic. The topics vary from day-to-day; routinely posts are made from new ones who have been disfellowshipped or disassociated and are suffering from depression from the shunning received by their parents, siblings and even their own children.
Shunning and sexual abuse are the top two discussions, and there are questions ranging from how to handle a child custody case; how to find new friends one can trust; and how to talk to JWs who come to your door. Recently one mother posted that she heard the doorbell ring, heard her young son talking to someone, but when she went to the door and told the woman she was the boy’s mother, the woman responded by saying, “Oh, YOU’RE the boy’s mother? Good bye.” She then turned on her heel and walked away. Experiencing extreme rudeness from current Jehovah’s Witnesses who come to your door only to realize you are disfellowshipped is something that no one should have to tolerate in their own home.
Dwelling on the positives
Many posts do not address concerns; rather, they elaborate on the contentment, successes and freedoms many have experienced now that they are no longer imprisoned by Watchtower’s mental cage. Such ones post about the simple happiness of holiday celebrations, making new friends with the help of exJW forums, finally learning to use their own thinking abilities, going to college and graduating with a degree which assists them in pursuing a rewarding career.
They post pictures of weddings, their newborns and subsequent birthday parties. One woman uploaded a picture of herself receiving her PhD, after having marched with her graduating class procession accompanied by the familiar Pomp and Circumstance music.
She had a moment of serendipity when she realized she’d been at this exact same venue when she’d attended district conventions as a youth where it had been reinforced that she should never go to college. Her graduation day was even more of an accomplishment for her due to its location.
On March 13, 2013 Ruben posted the following message:
“As many of you know I created a support group for Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses seven years ago. With the help of a great group of friends we have been able to keep it going for so long. Not only via online, but we have had meet-ups, made friends we have met in person, and attended invitations to a yearly BBQ hosted by a loving couple. Some of us have actually created our own families from this. This kind of work is not always an easy thing to do. Once in a while you have people that do not appreciate one being outspoken, especially on a subject as sensitive as religion. Sometimes you lose friends and even create enemies. It comes with the territory. It can be overwhelming at times, and you even think to yourself, why continue? Maybe it’s time I hang my hat. Then you get a message like the one I received today: ‘I’m not a very sentimental person (if you couldn’t tell). But my ramblings in [another private Facebook group] got me thinking about how lost I was before I found your group. I was a gigantic mess, and I would probably still be a mess if it weren’t for you. So from the very bottom of my heart – thank you, thank you, thank you!!! The community that YOU created on Facebook saved my life!’ I found myself without words when I read it. How many people get these kinds of messages? How wonderful is it that someone feels their lives were saved because of work you and others like you are doing? Very wonderful. Is it worth it then? I’d rather make 100 enemies if it means helping one person find happiness. And the best part is that when looking at it objectively, more good actually comes from what we do than negative. To this person, thank you from the bottom of my heart. People like you have helped me along the way as well. We’ve all helped one another. I am a kinder and more loving person because of the reciprocal kindness we have shown one another over the years. Thank you for the motivation and the love.” ~ Ruben Ortiz
This post was followed by a flood of responses. Here are a few selected samples:
“I actually thought to myself this week, ‘Interacting with other exJWs can be so emotionally draining. I wonder how people like Ruben can keep it up?’ Now I know, and I had to share that thought with you. Much love.”
“Ruben, it is very comforting to know that there are others who have experienced and made it through the mental and emotional circus that one goes through when dealing with or leaving a mindset known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
“I must say, Ruben Ortiz, before I found this group I was so lost, didn’t know what to do. Finding others whose experiences I could read, and vent to, literally saved my life. You saved my life. Please never give up.”
“It’s wonderful that you’ve been such a rock, a lighthouse and created such a safe harbor for exJWs.”
Ruben replied: “Wow. Thank you all!”
The Memorial-Free Day Challenge
On Tuesday, March 26, 2013, when Jehovah’s Witnesses the world over were preparing to attend the annual Memorial of Christ’s Death at their local kingdom halls, Ruben noticed a post by a new person. She was distraught, felt totally alone, only recently having come out of the organization. She wondered if there would ever be life for her on the outside. Ruben thought about what he could say or do to help prove to her that it only gets better from here on out. He finally settled on making the following post:
Memorial-Free Day Challenge!
“Let’s celebrate ourselves by showing how far we can go and what good we can do after leaving the Jehovah’s Witness organization. Post a picture of yourself doing something amazing or accomplishing a goal, etc. Win a race? Graduate from college? Volunteer? Let’s celebrate our accomplishments. When you post the picture place ‘Memorial Free Day challenge!’ in the description and explain what we’re seeing.”
The response was immediate!
People happily commented that they had run marathons; voted in political elections; played in bands. One became a curator in an art museum; another had won an Emmy. One posted a picture of himself after winning the BEST OF award for his DJ/Karaoke show. One opened a coffee shop and posted a picture of it, another pursued a legal career, some authored and published books. One graduated from nursing school and another appeared on a television interview with a hospital CEO.
One person’s comment summed it all up:
“I am soooo diggin’ all the pictures! I didn’t realize how many talented, intelligent, motivated people I am surrounded by here! And, the best part? WE’RE ALL SMILING! Quite a difference from the old days, isn’t it folks?”
At the end of that day, Ruben posted a video of the surprise wedding cake party, a celebration of his and Emily’s marriage.
Ruben reports that some have left the group because they were ready to move on with their lives without it. Others have remained, not necessarily for themselves, but to offer help to new ones and to maintain the camaraderie they’ve developed with others.
An uncanny resemblance
So do you see how Ruben Ortiz’ story compares to his favorite superhero? Batman witnessed the murder of his parents as a child and swore vengeance on criminals, an oath tempered with the greater ideal of justice. Ruben strongly believes that the treatment the Watchtower gives to its members is life-threatening, emotionally and physically. He strives to bring justice and relief to victims in his own way.
Batman operates in the fictional American Gotham City, assisted by various supporting characters including his crime-fighting partner, his butler, and the police commissioner; compared to Ruben and his co-admins in their fight against mental and spiritual villains.
Unlike most superheroes, Batman does not possess any superpowers; he makes use of intellect, detective skills, science and technology, wealth, physical prowess, martial arts skills, an indomitable will, fear, and intimidation in his continuous war on crime. Ruben may not share all of those attributes, but he’s using what he has to help others find happiness as they find their way out of Watchtower’s mental prison.
Joanna is the author of, “The Know-It-All Girl” ~ Memoir of a Former Jehovah’s Witness